Not a luxury: Rural residents want better broadband

Rural Broadband
Sam Malmberg, 31, works from home as a crop insurance adjuster in rural Walnut Grove, Minn. Malmberg sometimes has to rely on hot spots or working from the closest library to him, which might be several miles away when internet isn't reliable.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

On a hot, summer day on Sam Malmberg’s farm, a few miles outside of Walnut Grove, cows are grazing in a paddock and cats are playing in the front yard.

The 31-year-old crop insurance adjuster works on a computer set up in his living room, but sometimes he has to travel to the library in a neighboring town for a steady internet connection. Other times, he uses a mobile hot spot. He gets by, Malmberg said, and others he knows, work with less.

“Up until four years ago, I think, my parents had dial-up,” he said. “They basically have dial-up still. They have 3.5 megabits per second is their [download] speed. No Netflix, no Amazon Prime. Only email, and the occasional YouTube video.”

Rural Broadband
Sam Malmberg, 31, points off into the distance where his internet signal bounces off his satelite dish in the distance from his rural home.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

The state has set an internet speed goal of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads for all residents by 2022, with universal access to speeds of 100/20 by 2026. 

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According to the Blandin Foundation and the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, Redwood County ranks almost last in Minnesota when it comes to access to high-speed internet. Only about 44 percent of county residents have access to 25 Mbps downloads, and only about 36 percent have access to download speeds at 100 megabits per second. 

“Internet is now as necessary as electricity and water,” said Briana Mumme, Redwood County economic development coordinator. “I mean, like these are just part of how we do life. You just have to have access to it.”

About 90 percent of households have a computer statewide, according to the Blandin Foundation, and 81 percent have a laptop; 76 percent have a smartphone and 59 percent have a tablet. But, there are many areas in Minnesota, Mumme said, where access to high-speed internet is limited and working remotely and distance learning have run into problems, which was the case for one college student she knows who moved back home during the pandemic. 

“In order for him to attend school, he literally had to drive to his grandparents house, back into town where the bandwidth was bigger or more robust,” she said. “So he could actually do school.”

Rural Broadband
Walnut Grove is in Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Like other rural counties in Minnesota, Redwood County has been working to bring high-speed internet into the area for several years, but small local internet service providers say they can’t afford investing large amounts of money into areas where there aren’t a lot of people. 

Money to subsidize rural broadband initiatives has been limited, but recently the Minnesota Legislature approved $70 million for high-speed internet and the U.S. Senate passed an infrastructure package this week that would give the state at least $100 million for broadband upgrades. The infrastructure bill is now moving onto the House.

Other rural counties are also competing for better broadband and have seen the shift in how their communities are viewing the necessity for it. Lezlie Sauter, Pine County economic development coordinator, said COVID-19 revealed a lot of disparities where better internet access was needed in northern Minnesota.

“I think that the pandemic opened up our eyes to, ‘we have to be able to pivot and do work online,’ ” Sauter said. “I don’t think our community was prepared for it. I think some people were, but most of us viewed the internet and broadband as a luxury and it’s something we use to stream video and Netflix and all those things. But, we did not see how important it would be to keep conducting business.”

And as an enticement to attract workers to rural communities. Malmberg has friends and family who like the shift to remote work, and now find it possible to live outside the city and keep their jobs.

“Several of them were going to quit jobs in larger metropolitan areas, and their boss gave them the option to work remotely before it was even talked about,” he said. “And they would see their lives significantly improved by having broadband access. I sure would like to see some fiber optic around me.”

This week, Redwood County started mapping out areas requiring the most immediate attention for internet access. The work is being done by the nonprofit Lead for Minnesota.